The Expansive Universe and Childhood Beginnings: Tree of Life

The Tree of Life displays Terrence Malick at his most introspective, diving into the memories and emotions that defined his life, dissecting them at their most fundamental of ideas, painting them upon our screens, capturing an honesty that forces its audience to endure the same process as he has, finding ourselves in the living characters that transforms us back to our younger selves, even for a temporary moment, simultaneously re-experiencing and analysing them, finding a deeper value that would enrich our lives. This is Malick at his most personal, a self-indulgence to his own soul that manages to stretch towards universal empathy.




Before witnessing this film, it was difficult for me to comprehend that my own life would accurately be portrayed on screen, believing the cinematic medium as a tool for education and wonder, a romanticism of truth that artificially captures our heart and perceive the experience of penetration; but Malick has brought something far more ambitious, a romanticism that proves exactly that, stripping away the adjective artificiality that for so long I have stamped many films that have passed by me. Malick has displayed my entire life unfolding in front of me, and yet we have never met; it was if telling back my tale with an understanding greater than my own, earning a sense of nostalgia whilst gaining new insight into what would have been worthless memories and emotions.

Malick has created something that demands the deepest of our efforts, to push beyond our impulses and superficiality, to search the truth in ourselves, reflect upon what is shown, to be aware and potentially understand the forces and philosophies that direct our lives, to bring forth what was once unconscious onto shallow waters, to finally look in the mirror and see the true image of ourselves. I viewed the film through personal eyes, seeing my own father and mother in the roles that Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play; defined by their distinct philosophies, enduring through life with eyes uncompromised, a construction of character that may appear too singular and distant from complexity, but upon inspection, it seems that it is far from it.




The film’s eyes are primarily through the perspective of the eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken & Sean Penn), living through modern life with a sense of melancholy and confusion, recalling the memory of his dead brother decades ago, still introspectively conflicted by the dual forces that shaped him, finding success through his father’s values, yet disappoint of his outcome and aims to find a resolution towards his views of spirituality, which for years have been buried beneath him as he survives and thrives in a competitive and high-rise world.

Nostalgic eyes arrive through the recalling of Jack’s beginnings, recounting his growth from birth to adolescence, a life when viewed upon cynical and distant eyes would only find the banality upon such images, but through Malick’s eyes, it finds the ethereal essence that demonstrates a great sense of value that his audience would comfortably absorb. It swims in the trivial emotions of childhood; curiosity, joy, anger, confusion, fear, and jealousy. Exploring the conflicting values that have been instilled upon by his parents, a conflicting circumstance that would pave his formative road, defining his life in the process. There is familiarity within himself and his father, a man who signifies the road of nature, a figure who views life with harsh competitiveness and ownership, self-satisfactory in his impulsive needs, lives behind his prideful facade that fails to connect his true adoration towards those most important to him.




In the father’s attempt for self-created success, he dwells upon failure with great depth, almost as if in complete disgust of the world that surrounds him or falls into his bottled rage that impacts those who are close enough to witness the opening. He lives a life that is pessimistic, almost as if unconsciously setting himself up for disappointment, unable to cope with life’s unforeseeable and undesired outcomes. This is a man who refuses to see his children endure through similar disappointments, forcing upon them his strict values, hardening their shell to ensure a survival within such a world that is difficult to control. A disciplinary approach that would hurt the relationship between him and his children, viewing upon him as the villain of their domestic environment, constantly unsatisfied with their present state, a sense of love that seems to favour criticism rather than unconditional nurture; a relationship that exists far too familiar with my own life, Jack retaliating that is synonymous to my own experiences, often for the early stages of my childhood, praying, wishing, pleading for harsh circumstances to fall upon my father, mistaking for many years his concerning agenda with irrational hatred.

Such a relationship has forced me and my sister towards the forgiving and welcoming arms of our mother, whom Jessica Chastain resonates with sharp accuracy, a figure in our lives that encourage the virtues of honesty and contentment, a perspective of life that recalls the gust of a spring breeze. The mother figure becomes the vector of life’s search and necessity for spirituality, to free oneself from the burden of life’s responsibility and allow the unseen forces lead us to pathways that would be necessary for us at the given time. A philosophy that seems to bring more smiles than frustration, finding a harmonious zone within ourselves that simply pushes our desire to live, a fulfilment that naturally comes to us. Such an attitude forces one to become more passive towards moments of conflict and tension, to nurture the wounded rather than to speak with force and disrupt the natural order. Malick paints a marriage that is full of love but also equally filled with frustration and conflict, sourced from the contradicting personalities of the couple, but managing to endure due to one or the other’s ability to stabilise the boat.




Malick may seem to lean towards the mother over the father due to the warming responses that evoke upon her presence, but in actuality, we see the flaws of the other’s departure, the inability to maintain the rocky formation of their eldest son, attempting to find his distinct life pathway, unsure of which traits to absorb and which to withhold. It becomes evident that Jack’s life is a far more successful and fulfilling one due to the dual nature of his parents influence, finding a balance that allows him to search and attain deeper understanding of life itself, a malleability that is simply not found in the personalities of his parents. Through this, I cannot help but be thankful of my own position, to have parents that allow me to view life differently, one that expands my horizons that feeds further towards my curiosity, forcing me to explore avenues that would hopefully lead me to fulfilment by the time I reach life’s final terminal.

The Tree of Life brings upon such reflection through the visual and audible poetry that Malick demands from his collaborators; Emmanuel Lubezki, once again, creating graceful and immersive imagery that perfectly captures the soul of a human being, rarely allowing the camera to take on a condescending eye, hovering through the environment as if part of nature itself. Alexandre Desplat, filling the soundscape with luscious compositions, soulful and tender from start to end, acting as the true voice of Malick’s intentions, the shepherd that draws its audience close to the essence of its living characters, pulsating its vessels with the grand themes that never for a moment dampens its ambitions.




Terrence Malick’s fifth film is an equivalent to a collection of personal photographs that define one’s existence, one cannot help but stare upon it with deep nostalgia and reflection, gaining something of value and shaping our outlook of the road ahead. It pushes our need to instil meaning within our lives, doing so with an open spirit, unwilling to condescend or judge; it reaches an aesthetic that finds the filmmaker at his most ambitious, swallowing its audience from its opening to its final frame. Simply saying that I adore this film is not enough to justify the impact that this film had on me.


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